Having reached the semi-final of the Europa League United now find themselves drawn to play Spanish side Cleta de Vigo with the first leg to be played in Spain. Most observers consider that United got the best of the draw with Celta rated by many as the weakest side left in the competition. With United continuing to draw too many league games the Europa League looks like United’s most likely route back to the Champions League and so this is a big tie. Jose Mourinho will be keen to ensure United do not take this opponent likely.
United have never met this opponent before although have lots of experience against Spanish opposition. Celta were a fixture in European competition just after the turn of the century, usually in the then UEFA Cup but on one occasion finishing high enough to qualify for the Champions League. Unfotunately their fortunes then took a nose dive and they were relegated in 2004 just one year after finishing 4th in La Liga. They managed to bounce back the following year only to be relegated again in 2007 and they then remained in the Spanish second tier until gaining promotion in 2011. They have retained their place in La Liga since, making steady and gradual progress to establish themselves once more as a fixture in the top half of the table.
Their rise back to the Spanish top tier was masterminded by then manager Paco Herrera who was succeeded by Luis Enrique after they had avoided instant relegation on only the last day of the 2011-12 season. Enrique managed to move the side into the top half of the table before he was poached by FC Barcelona. Celta then turned to Argentinian Eduardo Berizzo who had previously managed Estudiantes in Argentina and O’Higgins in Chile. Significantly he was also assistant to Marcelo Bielsa when Bielsa was Chilean national coach back in 2007. Like so many other South American and Spanish coaches he is a Bielsa disciple.
When he first arrived in Spain Berizzo was 4-3-3 man but since those early days he has moved towards a 4-2-3-1. He has used both shapes in the Europa League this season and his strategy tends to change dependent upon the oppositions shape. A clear pattern in the Europa League this year is that whatever shape he starts with he does not tend to change during the game.
In his early days at Celta he adopted a midfield Trivote with a single holding midfield player behind a more advanced pair. That pair would help to drive the press which was led by the front three. That is classic Bielsa and no doubt is something United fans will recall from the Europa League tie a few years ago when United faced Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao. Press high, deny space, win the ball high close to the opponent’s goal and then hurt them quickly upon gaining possession.
It was late in 2014-15 season that Celta began to use a 4-2-3-1 shape. Since changing to that shape however they have still maintained a broadly similar high pressing approach. The difference here is that now they have two defensive midfield players to mind the shop with the press being directed by the number 10. In the Europa league this season they have only tended to digress from this approach when they have come up against a side playing a 4-4-2 approach.
This Year’s Europa League Campaign
Celta qualified from Group G finishing second on 9 points behind fellow semi-finalist Ajax. Celta won 2, drew 3 and lost 1 in the group. That loss was to Ajax 3-2 in Amsterdam. In the knockout rounds they overcame Shaktar Donestk on penalties winning 1-0 away after losing 0-1 Spain. They then beat Krasnodar of Russia home and away before narrowly overcoming Genk in the last round. They looked to be struggling after the first leg against the Belgians for whilst they had won the final score from the first leg was 3-2 so they had conceded two away goals. They managed to hold Genk to a 1-1 draw in Belgian however.
In the last two round they have stuck to their 4-2-3-1 shape mirroring their opponents shape.
Domestically they are not in a good place having lost their last three La Liga games, most recently on Sunday 30th April when they lost 0-3 at home in a match against Athletic Bilbao. They have conceded a goal in each of their Europa League home games this season.
Old Friends, enemies and danger men
Celta have a number of players “known” to United including former City player John Guidetti and Liverpool man Iago Aspas. The most familiar player to United fans however will be Old Trafford old boy Giuseppe Rossi who was at Old Trafford as a youngster between 2004-2007 making 5 league appearances and scoring 1 goal for the club. All three of these players are forwards with Aspas being Celta current top scorer in the Europa League with five goal.
Much has been expected of Guidetti since he scored 20 goals in 23 games for Feyenoord as an 18 year old back in 2010-11 season. He was on loan at Feyenoord from Manchester City who he had joined as a 16 year old. Whilst at City he also had loan spells at Burnley, Stoke City and Celtic as well as Feyenoord before joining Celta for the 2015-16 season. Last year he managed 12 goals from 43 games but this year he has only managed 3 goals in 20 games and a further 4 in 11 Europa League games. Guidetti is now 25 and previously touted as the natural successor to our own Zlatan Ibrahimovic, (he is Swedish), he needs to step up soon and has something to prove. Iago Aspas remains the main man in attack.
One youngster to watch is local lad Jonny Castro, (whose name makes him sound like a mob hit man from an American gangster movie). He is a quick 22-year-old fullback. He is right footed but has played as much at left back as at right back so far in his career and has even featured in central defence on occasions. A clever player, quick with good technical skills he likes to get forward and managed to score the winner in this year’s Copa del Rey Quarter-final against Real Madrid as Celta won through 4-3 on aggregate. In many respects Castro is Celta insurance policy as he is so quick to get forward and back and has great energy so ensuring that they are rarely caught on the break as they press forward.
As Celta showed in defeating Real Madrid and in making progress to this stage of the Europa League they need to be treated with respect. They have reached the semi-final of the competition having conceded in every home game. United have an injury crisis at the moment of course, particularly in defence and we would expect Jose to set up his team to keep it tight in the first leg. United should go through from this tie however provided that they do not underestimate their opponents.